Administrative History
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boundary map of Gila Cliff Dwellings NM
Boundary of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
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Summary: Setting

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is divided into two units that are located in Catron County, the largest county in southwestern New Mexico and the least populated in the state. Specifically, the two units lie in Township 12 South, Range 14 West. The western unit comprises 480 acres, includes the namesake cliff dwellings, and lies in sections 22 and 27. The TJ unit is about one mile farther south. Named for the TJ Ruin, which it encompasses, this unit measures 53 acres, and lies in section 25. The headquarters of the monument, a building that also houses the offices of the Wilderness Ranger District, lies on yet another 107-acre parcel that was withdrawn as a joint-use administrative site and that remains under Forest Service jurisdiction. This parcel is also located in section 25 and is adjacent to the TJ unit.


The predominant geology of the area stems from volcanic activity in the Oligocene epoch, beginning about 30 million years ago and lasting 20 to 25 million years. Approximately 1,000 to 1,200 feet of ash and other volcanic materials were deposited. The surrounding land then collapsed into the voids created by the volcanic outpourings, resulting in a phenomenon called a caldera. The near ubiquity of rhyolite and basalts reflect this geologic past, and so do hot springs along the river.

As the volcanic activity subsided, erosion—aggravated by block faulting—and subsequent deposit of the eroded materials created the Gila Conglomerate rock, in which the cliff dwellings are located. Continued faulting created the valley through which the river flows today. Uplifted blocks or horsts form the rolling mesas that stretch between the West Fork and the Middle Fork and the East Fork. The entire area is bordered on three sides by high mountains: the Mogollon Range to the west, the Black Range to the east, and the Pinos Altos Range to the south.


The monument lies at 6,000 feet, in a valley that is approximately a half-mile across at its broadest reach. The western unit occupies most of Cliff Dweller Canyon, which opens onto the West Fork of the Gila River. The TJ unit lies on a mesa, overlooking the confluence of the West Fork and the Middle Fork. Meandering through the valley, the river flows over gravel bottoms, at an annual average rate of 177 cubic-feet-per-second. [3] The greatest flows occur during the spring run-off in March and April, when water flows reach 354 and 386 cfs respectively.

Rainfall averages 18 to 20 inches annually at the cliff dwellings, with most of this precipitation coming in July and August. In the surrounding mountains, rainfall is higher, especially in the Mogollon Range, where elevations reach nearly 11,000 feet and precipitation averages 40 inches. A little more than 1,600 square miles of the nearby mountains is drained by the West Fork and the Middle Fork.

Within Cliff Dweller Canyon, about 100 yards below the eponymous ruins, there is a permanent spring and a perennial stream. Along the bottom of this canyon, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir grow, as well as narrow-leaf cottonwood, willows, and box-elders. The same riparian plants also grow along the Gila River, as do alders. Juniper, pinyon, yuccas, and often oaks occupy south-facing slopes of canyons and hills; ponderosa and Douglas fir grow on north-facing slopes; gramas are the predominant grasses.

Down the river from the cliff dwellings are pockets of soil adequate for farming. The slope and the breadth of valley mitigate the chilling effects of cold air that drains the higher surrounding country, and as a result, the valley has a growing season that averages 140 days. The last frost usually occurs in mid-May and the first in early October. In Gila Cliff Dwellings, the remains of eight varieties of cultivated plants were recovered during an excavation in 1963.

In addition to agriculture, the moderate climate and the well-watered land of the valley support a diversity of wild plants suitable for gathering. From the cliff dwellings, 24 wild taxa have been identified. The valley, its waters, and the highlands together support abundant wildlife, as well, including mountain lion, mule deer, elk, beaver, numerous small mammals, ducks, herons, turkeys, doves, and a lot of other birds. Today, fishermen often cast for trout—stocked rainbows—in the beaver ponds just up the West Fork from Cliff Dweller Canyon. No discernable fish bones have been found in the ruins, but remains of 22 wild mammalian species and 23 avian species have been excavated, including samples of all the animals named above. In short, the valley is a lush, sheltered, and beautiful place, and these attributes have often been noted in the historical record.

Since 1924, the monument has been essentially surrounded by the Gila Wilderness, the first officially designated in the country and still the largest in the Southwest. A single road reaches the monument from the south, through a corridor that was eliminated from the wilderness in 1953. This paved road—State Highway 15—extends 19 miles through the wilderness, and a motorist must drive another 18 miles, largely through the Gila National Forest, to reach Silver City, which is the nearest incorporated town. Because the road winds and the grades are steep, a one-way trip takes approximately 2 hours, and a visit to the monument is usually a full day's outing. The monument contains no camping facilities, but there are several nearby campgrounds managed by the Forest Service and one that is privately owned.

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Last Updated: 23-Apr-2001